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As an engineering student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Sajeeth Cherian came up with a technology that could transform television.
Drawing on headline syndication technology used for blogs, he created a program called Videora, which scours the Internet for specific video content and downloads it automatically.
Cherian touts his invention as a type of TiVo for the Internet that can find practically any kind of video imaginable, instead of the limited slice offered by cable or satellite companies. And beyond its immediate application, the software represents a new wave of homegrown technologies that are prodding the development of next-generation television in general.
In practice, however, people today are using Videora and other new technologies to download copyrighted TV shows--which is strictly forbidden in the United States. As a result, the television world is feeling pressures similar to those that besieged the recording industry with the Napster phenomenon. Piracy-monitoring firm BayTSP says TV shows are the
fastest-growing content on peer-to-peer networks.
A technology called BitTorrent enables people to post online links to shows, which are then downloaded quickly from other file swappers' computers. Web sites like TVTorrents.com offer the latest episodes of "CSI," "The O.C." and other favorites. Shows are also routinely available through traditional file-swapping networks like eDonkey or Kazaa.
Many popular sites offering links to films and TV shows have vanished in the face of Hollywood opposition. But others continue to risk prosecution, and their reasons go beyond viewing convenience or a simple interest in tinkering with technology. For some, the defiance is part of a movement to wrest back control
of the mass medium from government and corporate interests.
In late 2003, for example, civil libertarians were outraged when the Federal Communications Commission ruled that electronics makers had to build in technology that recognizes "broadcast flags" in digital television signals, a technology aimed at blocking online distribution of TV shows. The nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation responded by calling for classes held to teach people how to construct their own digital video recorders before July 1 this year, when the ruling goes into effect.
In a digital "cookbook" available online, the group explains how to cobble together homemade DVRs from off-the-shelf PC components and free open-source software, including the popular MythTV and KnoppMyth programs.
"This is a case of the government getting in the way of something they shouldn't even be involved in," said Wendy Seltzer, an attorney at the San Francisco-based EFF. "The flags take control away from consumers and give it to the networks."